In what follows, I will offer the best picture I can of the character of liberalism as a set of political theories, given that there has never been a single pure or true form of liberalism. I’ll briefly examine the substantial displacement of liberal thought in Western democracies, and offer some thoughts as to how that came about.
Though it’s difficult to nail down the exact causes of liberalism’s decline, any gain in understanding is worthwhile. That is partly because of the question’s inherent interest, but also so that we can better imagine how the situation might have turned out differently. Currently popular ideologies are products of historical choices and contingencies. There were, and are, other options.
What Is This Thing Called Liberalism?
The closer we examine the history of liberal thought and the viewpoints of its advocates and interpreters, the less liberalism appears to be a unitary phenomenon at all. Thus, Gerald Gaus, Shane D. Courtland and David Schmidtz begin their “Liberalism” article for the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by stating: “Liberalism is more than one thing. On any close examination, it seems to fracture into a range of related but sometimes competing visions.”
It is not even clear when liberalism first appeared as something distinct from other currents of thought in the early centuries of European modernity. Gaus, Courtland and Schmidtz refer to John Locke as a paradigmatic liberal—a view of Locke that has become commonplace in recent decades. But Locke—who wrote in the late seventeenth century—never called himself a liberal. On the contrary, the words liberalism, in the sense of a political theory (or set of theories), and liberal, referring to a person who subscribes to liberalism, did not appear in English until more than a century after Locke’s death in 1704. As John G. Gunnell has pointed out, few, if any, commentators classified Locke as a liberal prior to the 1950s.
Likewise, the eighteenth-century British deists (such as Anthony Collins and Matthew Tindal) never thought of themselves as liberals, and neither did Enlightenment figures such as Diderot, d’Alembert, d’Holbach, Beccaria, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Helvétius, Montesquieu or Mirabeau, though they undoubtedly contributed to liberal thought. Nor did any major thinkers among the Founding Fathers of the United States (such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) think of themselves as liberals.
In fact, the first people to label themselves as liberals, or the equivalent in their own language, were the members of a Spanish political party, the Liberales, formed in response to the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808. They advocated the ideals of the French Revolution in its initial phases, prior to the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon. They supported the short-lived 1812 Spanish constitution, which was largely based on the French constitution of 1791.
In the following years, versions of liberalism found their way to Portugal, Italy, France and elsewhere in Europe. Throughout the nineteenth century, and into the early decades of the twentieth, varied conceptions of liberalism also became prominent in the emerging Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations of Latin America. The word libéralisme entered French around 1816–18, providing one obvious source for liberalism in English. The first written appearance of liberalism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1816, but this was in reference to events in contemporary Spain.
The leading figure in developing, inspiring and advocating liberalism during its early decades was arguably the Swiss–French author and statesman Benjamin Constant, who in turn was influenced by Locke, Montesquieu and the ideals of the French Revolution. He admired France’s 1791 constitution, but was a critic of the Terror.
Constant is most remembered for his insistence on the idea of limited government and his distinction between “the Liberty of the Ancients” and “the Liberty of the Moderns,” that is, between citizen participation in government, such as was prized in the ancient world (in some places and at some points in history), and individual freedom, especially in citizens’ choices about their private lives. He argued for representative and constitutional government, a separation of government powers, the rule of law and a zone of individual privacy.
According to Ronald D. Rotunda, the English word liberals was first applied to a group of British political figures in the 1830s. It was intended as a term of deprecation or abuse, designed to associate the so-called liberals with their radical—for the era—namesakes in Spain, France and elsewhere in mainland Europe. However, the label was embraced by the people it was applied to, and so it stuck. The word liberal (in its political sense) and its cognates, such as liberals and liberalism, easily acquired positive connotations because of the everyday English meaning of the adjective liberal, with its suggestions of tolerance and generosity.
As analyzed by Rotunda, British liberalism originally contained three sub-groups: philosophical radicals who espoused the moral and political ideas of Jeremy Bentham; free market economists, such as Richard Cobden, whose thinking descended from that of Adam Smith; and religious nonconformists, who favored religious tolerance and humanitarian projects.
Bentham admired Locke, Montesquieu, d’Alembert, Hume, Beccaria and Helvétius—though he criticized some of them on various points—and corresponded with Mirabeau. His writings supported individual freedom, freedom of the press, a rationalization of government power and (along with the latter) a program of law reform based on utilitarian principles.
The liberal agenda in 1830s Britain covered a variety of social and political reforms. They included extending the franchise, reducing the privileges of the Church of England and modernizing the economy. The latter project entailed an emphasis on free trade—most notably, efforts to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws. In 1859, British liberals organized themselves into the Liberal Party, which was a political behemoth until the 1920s. In 1988, it became part of the Liberal Democrats and merged with the Social Democratic Party.
In its classical form, from the 1830s to the 1860s, British liberalism was associated with laissez-faire economics, but few of its leading figures—Herbert Spencer is a well-known exception—were implacably opposed to social spending by the state or to state intervention in capitalist markets. All sub-groups within British liberalism had humanitarian impulses.
The humanitarian thread running through British liberalism led to an increasing emphasis, after around 1870, on welfare programs. There was some internal resistance to this, but an element of welfarism made sense even from the perspective of many free market economic liberals. Their insistence on free trade had never been just a matter of abstract theorizing. In particular, the Corn Laws favored aristocratic landowners, while producing ruinously high prices for the basic food needed by the poor. When the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, it was a victory for humanitarian sentiment as much as for economic theory.
In the late nineteenth century, British liberalism increasingly accommodated the views of workers and their trade unions, as successive governments shouldered new responsibilities that were inevitably funded through taxes. The resulting welfare liberalism, or New Liberalism, became dominant by the first two decades of the twentieth century. It can, for example, be seen in the writings of L. T. Hobhouse and the political practice of H. H. Asquith (British prime minister 1908–16) and Lloyd George (British prime minister 1916–22) .
Liberalism in the United States
During the nineteenth century, varieties of liberal ideology were enormously influential in Latin America, including Mexico, but not north of the US–Mexico border. In the United States, the term liberalism for a political theory or approach to politics was seldom used until the 1930s. Prior to that, everyday American political discussion included words such as progressive, but not liberal or liberalism. In the rare cases in which these were used, they signified an attitude of broad social toleration and pluralism, with little specific content.
However, the word liberal and the concept of liberalism were fought over by major American political figures during the early years of the 1930s, when presidential rivals Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt both presented themselves to the electorate as true liberals. American liberalism came to be associated with the New Deal, advanced by Roosevelt as a response to the Great Depression. In the US, therefore, the local brand of liberalism mimicked British welfare liberalism. Indeed, in the US, but nowhere else, liberalism came to mean, in large part, policies of economic intervention.
Liberalism is not the theory of any single person. It has been variously interpreted by statesmen, revolutionaries and public intellectuals, who have often been interested chiefly in obtaining practical results. Though they have drawn on the ideas of philosophers from the seventeenth century (notably Baruch Spinoza and John Locke) and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, liberalism’s interpreters have not been primarily concerned with theoretical purity or coherence. As a result, liberalism is not a unified philosophical system, but has taken numerous forms.
However, the various historical liberalisms of Europe, Latin America, the US and elsewhere had common elements. They promoted secular government and religious freedom, to accommodate the religious pluralism that arose in Europe and its colonies after the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. More broadly, they tended to resist the power of established churches (usually the Roman Catholic Church), and they favored conceptions of the state in which individuals were not accountable to secular authorities for their religious beliefs.
More broadly, the various historical liberalisms tolerated a wide range of ideas, worldviews, ways of life and associated subcultures. They attempted to accommodate people from a variety of traditional cultures, even when these were illiberal in their teachings and customs.
In all its varieties, liberalism has tended to favor limited government and a separation of governmental powers, independence of the judiciary, and notions of the rule of law, equality of citizens before the law and due process for individuals accused of crimes. Liberalism has emphasized freedom of thought, inquiry, speech and public discussion, including freedom of the press. It historically opposed the interests of landowning nobles in its pursuit of free trade, economic modernization and various humanitarian objectives.
Above all, liberalism supports the freedom of the individual, particularly freedom from the power of church and state, but also, at least in some formulations, from the pressures of social conformity.
Today, John Stuart Mill is regarded as the most representative liberal philosopher and statesman, and his 1859 book, On Liberty, is thought to summarize the essence of liberal thought. Mill placed great emphasis on values such as individuality, spontaneity and free thinking. Following earlier Enlightenment and liberal thinkers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, he developed what is now referred to as the harm principle. Roughly, this principle rules out the legal prohibition or social suppression of conduct that does not cause significant and direct harm to non-consenting others.
Mill feared the pressures to conform exerted by a society’s prevailing opinions and attitudes at least as much as he feared the tyranny of overreaching governments. In this respect, he went further than his immediate forbears in Britain, such as Bentham, whose emphasis was on using the most rational principles to guide legislation. On Liberty was influenced by von Humboldt’s emphasis on the free development of the individual and Alexis de Tocqueville’s concerns about an emerging tyranny of the majority.
British welfare liberalism did not reject these aspects of liberal thought. After 1870, British liberalism developed commitments to social spending and economic regulation, but without abandoning its core principles, such as individual freedom and unrestricted public discussion. Likewise, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his political descendants in the US from the 1930s to the 1970s did not abandon these key liberal ideas.
Thus, Gerald Gaus and his co-authors acknowledge that “liberalism fractures” on many important issues, but they emphasize that liberals—and, we might add, liberalisms—join in rejecting political approaches in which individual freedom is subordinated to other values, such as equality, communitarian participation in society or the “traditional values and virtues” lauded by conservative thinkers.
British welfare liberalism and the American liberalism of the New Deal were revisionist in their emphasis on government interventions, but remained recognizably liberal in important ways. They were not post-liberal ideologies.
Conceptions of Post-Liberalism
A 2017article by Adrian Pabst identifies post-liberalism as a new central ground in British politics. Here, however, the word seems to be roughly a synonym for communitarianism. Pabst writes of a social order shifting toward “social solidarity and fraternal relations.”
In his 1993 book, Post-Liberalism, John Gray argues that liberalism is dead, though his reasoning is dubious. Gray identifies four philosophical elements that he thinks constitute liberalism, at least since Mill: universalism, individualism, egalitarianism and meliorism (a belief in progressive social improvement). For Gray, liberalism is dead because it is committed to defending these values in an absolute and extreme form that is, he suggests, now untenable, because we now recognize a wider plurality of values, which cannot be objectively measured against each other.
Yet Gray argues that the four liberal values he identifies—universalism, individualism, egalitarianism and meliorism—are, indeed, the best social and political values for cultures marked by what he calls “a diversity of incommensurable conceptions of the good,” a description within which he explicitly includes virtually all modern cultures. Gray thus defends liberal values on the basis of historical and pragmatic considerations, rather than on metaphysical or fundamental grounds.
For three decades now, Gray has appeared increasingly hostile to Mill and the traditions of liberalism, but his position in 1993 is best thought of as a variation of liberal thought, rather than genuine post-liberalism. Gray exaggerates the metaphysical commitments in the writings of Mill and most other liberal thinkers, while underestimating the diversity of liberalisms supported in the past by statesmen and public intellectuals forced to respond in practical ways to concrete circumstances. Gray’s conception of post-liberalism amounts to little more than a metaphysically modest brand of liberalism.
Nonetheless, there is a more troubling sense in which Western liberal democracies have entered a post-liberal era, an era of eroded support for values such as individual freedom and untrammeled public discussion. This follows a global decline in liberalism as a socially active theory of politics.
Since the 1910s and 20s, liberalism has been challenged by a wide variety of socialist, Marxist, fascist, communitarian, conservative, populist, positivist, theocratic and other ideologies (see Rivera’s article on “Liberalism in Latin America” for a comment on the situation specific to that region). In the UK, for example, there has not been a Liberal Party prime minister since the 1920s, although traditional liberal ideas continued in the following decades to exert influence on, for example, public debate over literary censorship and gay rights.
Since the 1930s, many Western intellectuals have criticized liberalism for its apparent inability to prevent the collapse of the Weimar Republic, the rise of fascist and communist totalitarianisms in Europe, and the frightening emergence of paramilitary fascist groups even in the US and UK. Some political theorists even suggested that democracies should be a bit more authoritarian in guiding their populations away from totalitarianism and racial or religious bigotry. In the 1930s and 40s, this prompted legislative efforts in the US to suppress some kinds of intolerant language. A group libel law, originally enacted in 1917, was eventually upheld as constitutional by the US Supreme Court in the 1952 case Beauharnais v. Illinois.
In Germany, the politically dominant view after World War II, the Holocaust, and the defeat of the Third Reich was that democracies needed to defend themselves with what would normally be considered illiberal laws—aimed at outlawing the worst action and speech from movements committed to overthrowing democracy and liberal tolerance themselves. Karl Popper gave philosophical expression to the idea with his warning about the paradox of tolerance. In The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), he supported prohibition of the most intolerant, would-be persecutorial movements and organizations, clearly thinking mainly of Nazis and fascists.
In the decades following World War II, similar ideas were injected into international human rights instruments such as UN conventions. In the United States, Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson (dissenting in the 1949 Terminiello case) commented that a technical and doctrinaire approach to liberty could “convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”
There is, however, an obvious problem with this. Even if banning an organization such as the Nazi Party could be justified, in principle, as an action to cut through the paradox of tolerance, there is a danger that many demagogues would use it as a precedent.
In recent decades, we have, indeed, seen many efforts to suppress ideas and expression identified by one or another participant in public discussion as too dangerous to tolerate. In some cases, this has involved stigmatizing disliked speech as similar to that of Nazis and fascists. In other cases, novel arguments have been introduced, as with feminist arguments against pornography.
Notwithstanding outliers such as the Beauharnais case, liberal ideas about freedom of speech retained considerable prestige in Anglophone democracies through the 1950s and 60s, and, indeed, well into the 70s. Laws against victimless crimes were pushed back during this time, as was literary and artistic censorship. During the second half of the 1970s, however, and increasingly in the 80s, liberal ideas of freedom came under attack from elements of the political Left to such an extent that they now retain little prestige in left-wing circles.
As a result, twenty-first-century Western politics is largely a clash of authoritarianisms. It is fought out between social conservatives—many of whom still wish to impose Christian sexual morality to whatever extent they can—and left-wing authoritarians who view liberalism with contempt. This is the sense in which we, in the West, have become post-liberal.
The Usual Suspects: Cultural Marxists and Postmodernists
The situation I’ve described is often blamed on Western Marxists (so-called cultural Marxists)— influenced by György Lukács, Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School—or on the exponents of various kinds of relativism, social construction theory, post-structuralism, deconstruction and so on. With some loss of philosophical rigor, the second group’s theories are often lumped together as postmodernism, though that word also has more specific and precise meanings.
Soviet Marxism was, no doubt, profoundly anti-liberal. When they attained power in Russia in 1917, and established the USSR, the Bolshevik revolutionaries saw themselves as caught in a life-or-death struggle of near cosmic proportions, against powerful, malicious opponents. Such a mentality easily takes hold among activists with revolutionary aims, and it leads to the ruthless suppression of opposition, as well as to the stringent policing of political conformity among followers and allies.
Not surprisingly, pro-Soviet organizations in the West, i.e. the communist parties of particular Western countries, enforced a (supposedly) correct party line on their members. Only slightly more surprisingly, many organizations involved in the 1960s social revolutions used similar purity policing, with factions, schisms and mutual denunciations, as rival party lines developed.
Members of the Frankfurt School, led by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, eventually emigrating to the US. Frankfurt School luminaries were among the early critics of liberalism for its ineffectual efforts in resisting totalitarianism, but they provided only one set of voices among many that identified what Popper later called the paradox of tolerance.
Efforts of Western Marxists helped generate suspicion toward mass culture, encouraging a climate of censoriousness among cultural critics. During the 1960s, one especially influential member of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse, encouraged intolerance—even violence—toward right-wing political opponents. Yet, the main focus of the Frankfurt School was upon personal liberation. The strong move away from liberal ideas in Anglophone democracies did not occur until much later—after 1975.
Other founders of Western Marxism, such as Lukács, provided ideas that may have contributed to illiberalism on the left, but Western Marxism seems to be only a small part of the story of how we became post-liberal.
Likewise, so-called postmodernists (including iconic French theorists such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Alain Badiou) probably deserve little of the blame for our current post-liberal predicament. At a broad level, some of these theorists—or their second- and third-rate imitators—convert political controversies into matters of, as Charles Taylor puts it, “power and counterpower.” When this happens, rational public discussion, based on empirically credible premises and formally cogent logic, is replaced by “taking sides in solidarity” (Taylor again) or by looking for which groups are most affected by various kinds of social subjugation, and then regarding those groups as sacred.
The Example of Abortion Rights
But, even in the absence of postmodernist philosophies, this kind of tribalism presents an easy trap for anyone once they feel strongly enough about a social issue. I doubt, for example, that postmodernism has exercised much influence on American party politics, but the way abortion rights are typically defended by the Democratic Party shows evidence of this style of thinking.
Despite the slogan pro-choice, the contemporary defense of abortion rights relies less than we might expect on rhetoric from liberal political philosophy, with arguments that invoke individual freedom or autonomy, and more on claims about the social distribution of power and subordination, and about whose interests we should side with in the social struggle. As Grossmann and Hopkins put it, the Democrats frame their support for abortion rights “as a defense of the particular rights of women,” rather than by referring to Enlightenment or liberal principles.
The theories of postmodernists are a resource that can be used to argue for a wide range of ideas, from the libertine to the nakedly authoritarian. When they appear in contemporary controversies over identity politics, however, they encourage anti-intellectual and illiberal styles of debate. They give an intellectual gloss to approaches that would likely have existed anyway, at least to some extent. Overall, post-structuralists, social constructionists and the rest have played a supporting role in the most recent displacement of liberalism and liberal rhetoric. They were, however, probably not the prime movers.
Back to the 70s: The Example of Feminism
In the second half of the 1970s, many social movements which had argued for liberation and tolerance lost trust in liberal ideas, as insufficient to their particular social goals (which they understandably prioritized over any commitment to liberalism itself).
This can be seen with second-wave feminism, which began in the 1960s as a movement to emancipate Western women from legal structures, cultural discourses and social expectations that consigned them to highly restricted and often soul-destroying life options. In itself, that ambition was totally compatible with, and followed from, liberal thought.
After about 1975, the feminist movement split: some elements of the movement focused on what they interpreted as the sexual objectification of women, and on the most predatory manifestations of male sexuality. As Owen Fiss has noted, this sometimes encouraged suspicion of even quite ordinary heterosexual relationships. Some feminists campaigned for new restrictions on conduct and expression, especially restrictions on pornography.
The anti-pornography feminists who emerged and organized in the second half of the 1970s were not a uniquely illiberal faction in the history of feminism. They were, however, in the vanguard of a general loss of trust in liberal ideas within liberal and left-wing activism more generally. Later waves of feminism, including those that have taken inspiration from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersecting social identities, have often turned out to be intolerant in their debating styles and attitudes to dissent.
In principle, exploration by feminists and other socially concerned people, of the complex intersections of multiple group—including class—identities should be entirely beneficial. It should introduce an additional layer of realism and subtlety into social analysis, and help us avoid broad-brush contrasts between, say, the interests of men and women. In practice, however, an obsession with multiple, intersecting identities can lead to illiberalism and intellectual vulgarity. It can reduce debate to a contest as to who is most thoroughly or multiply subjugated.
Beyond the feminist movement, a more general split within liberal and left-wing activism opened up in the late 1970s. For example, campaigners for racial equality in the US began to push for restrictions on speech relating to racial issues. This became particularly conspicuous on college campuses, where restrictive speech codes were introduced during the 1980s (and soon challenged successfully in the courts).
As the split continued and widened, much of American liberalism became far more deeply revisionist than the Roosevelt model of the 1930s. Similar patterns occurred in other countries, including the UK, where much of the debate was related to immigration and Islam—a debate which culminated in the 1989 Rushdie Affair and the betrayal of Salman Rushdie by much of the British Left.
The welfarist turn in liberalism from the 1870s to the 1930s and beyond can be viewed as an add-on to liberal thought. By contrast, much that is called liberalism in post-1970s America, in particular, does not merely add to traditional liberal ideas—it positively treats those ideas with contempt. This is liberalism in name only.
Within the academic and cultural Left of Anglophone democracies, traditional liberalism, based on Enlightenment thought and the early ideals of the French Revolution, is largely extinct. But liberal ideas remain attractive to many ordinary people, and so retain some electoral appeal. Traditional liberalism may, therefore, have a future, though it no longer has an obvious power base.
Left-wing politics is now focused on assisting historically oppressed groups. This can involve censoring any criticism of them, their beliefs or their symbols. Dissent from the party line on this attracts a softer, but still effective, form of Soviet-style purity policing. Its tools are ostracism, smear campaigns, no-platforming and (especially) attempts to get people fired for wrongthink.
The Left’s ethic of care for oppressed groups is commendable. Yet its methods can also be perverse, as with much of the current solicitude toward Islam and any cultural practices associated with it. Consider, for example, the various face-covering garments commonly referred to as the burqa. Compelling women to wear such garments is abhorrent, while actually wearing them conforms to, and expresses, a deplorable ideology with regard to gender and sexuality.
Since the burqa is worn voluntarily in at least some cases (i.e. by women who have been socialized into its underlying ideology), and since merely wearing an item of clothing does not inflict significant, direct harm on non-consenting others, the burqa should not be prohibited by law in a liberal society.
It is, however, unimpressive when left-wing academics, journalists, and public intellectuals treat the burqa almost as a sacred symbol of racial inclusivity—and therefore as beyond criticism or ridicule. As a result, these commentators appear illiberal, out of touch and morally clueless. In the name of opposing so-called Islamophobia, they sanctify practices of female seclusion and veiling that oppress many actual Muslims.
The logical way forward at the present time is a return to traditional liberal ideas, though we should certainly apply these in ways that are emancipatory of women and oppressed minorities. I sense some momentum building in support of this viewpoint, towards which my book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism, makes a small contribution. How much we can achieve in rescuing traditional liberalism from its right-wing and left-wing foes will depend on numerous choices and contingencies, not least on how much courage people like me are willing to show in a hostile cultural environment.